How Russia Can Help the United States Defuse the Korean Crisis

The current crisis between the United States and North Korea is drawing major countries into its orbit, including neighboring Russia. After all, North Korea is on Russia’s doorstep and any instability or conflict there would reverberate in the Russian Far East as well as have regional and global consequences most likely detrimental to Russian interests.

Russian politicians and experts alike are bewildered by how the leaders of both the United States and North Korea have allowed incendiary and irresponsible rhetoric after North Korea’s ICBM tests in July[1] to put both countries on a path toward conflict. Moscow is therefore, eager to cooperate with the US diplomatically to help avoid the worst-case scenario. This includes working together to define a plausible course of action and finding solutions that will resonate with all the parties, including North Korea, as Moscow’s relations with Pyongyang are the least frosty among the great powers.

Russian experts put most of the blame for this escalating crisis on the United States. They are skeptical that North Korea would ever attack the United States, seeing such threats as just a bluff. They also doubt that US President Trump would make good on threats of preventive strikes that would have devastating consequences for South Korea and Japan, the US global position and its relations with major powers, and the global economy. They believe that North Korea would only use its missiles in response to an attack on its territory, and that US preventive strikes would only be able to destroy a few of these missiles. Thus, the meager benefits of a US preventive strike on North Korea would hardly seem to justify the incalculable costs.

The question at hand then is: Is there a peaceful way out of this impasse? Pyongyang has said many times that it does not want to have the United States as an “eternal enemy,” and would, in fact, like to improve relations with Washington to protect itself from Chinese domination. Thus, a more normal North Korean relationship with the US might even counter-balance growing Chinese influence in the region.

Despite worsening relations between Moscow and Washington, North Korea’s growing WMD program poses significant challenges for both countries, which may create an opportunity for Russia and the United States to cooperate in finding a resolution to the problem.

While both countries share the goal of a denuclearized North Korea,[2] it is important to understand the differences between their views on the situation:

  • The US is eager to “keep all options on the table” to curtail the North’s missile and nuclear programs. However, Russia does not believe that there is a military option to denuclearize North Korea, and insists that only political-diplomatic tools are permissible. The leaders in the Kremlin also resent Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.
  • The Russian government does not believe that the US demand for CVID (compete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization) is a practical near-term goal. Instead, Russia believes the discussion on security arrangements on the Korean peninsula should be held in parallel with negotiations on nuclear issue, and that only a direct treaty between Washington and Pyongyang, combined with multilateral guarantees, can bring lasting peace and stability to the region. Russia will probably continuously explain to the United States the benefits of such a solution, though realizing the time for Washington to make such a strategic choice is yet to come.
  • Moscow is skeptical of the US view that sanctions and isolation may force North Korean leaders to succumb to pressure and agree to denuclearization. Russia does not believe that sanctions alone can change North Korean behavior, but rather must be combined with dialogue and engagement.
  • The US “political class” is generally skeptical about formally recognizing the DPRK, seeing it a “rogue regime” with an abominable political system and human rights record. Russia thinks that recognizing a state that has existed for over 70 years and is a member of the United Nations is a normal step towards creation of a system of collective security in Northeast Asia. It also has never believed in a high probability of a collapse of the North Korean regime and suggests there is no alternative to the current leaders as partners for dialogue.

The Trump administration has mishandled the current confrontation with North Korea. From Moscow’s perspective, the North exercised relative restraint in early period of Trump’s presidency as compared to similar situations in the past. In contrast, Trump made “solving” the North Korean problem a defining goal of his presidency, however ill-advised. He then compounded the problem by using bellicose rhetoric, which increased the risk of a conflict through accident or miscalculation. The Trump administration’s pressure tactics with China are bound to fail, and Russian policymakers and the public resent pressure on Russia to increase sanctions against North Korea and “monitor” compliance”[3] The recent case of sanctioning Russian companies and individuals for dealings with North Korea even prompted the Russian Foreign Ministry to work out “retaliatory measures” against the United States.[4]

Moscow agrees that strategic patience is no longer an option for resolving the North Korean problem. If war can be avoided, negotiations are the most probable pathway forward because neither increased Chinese pressure nor more draconian sanctions will force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. The best hope, after several weeks of saber-rattling, including North Korean threats to fire missiles to the vicinity of Guam (and assuming the US-ROK “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” joint military exercise passes without a military confrontation), is that the rhetoric will subside and Pyongyang and Washington would start behind-the-scene consultations and eventually negotiations, recognizing the reality that North Korea is now a state that possesses nuclear weapons.

The longer the search for a compromise is postponed, the greater the danger that North Korea will succeed in “decoupling” the US from its alliances with South Korea and Japan. As Richard Bush and Thomas Berger explained, “Pyongyang could very possibly use its new capability not only to defend itself, but also to enable it to challenge its neighbors both to score political points domestically and to blackmail Seoul and Tokyo into making economic and political concessions” and even to attack South Korea in a unification bid.

How could this danger be removed? First, it is time to urgently arrest the development of North Korean WMD, when North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have not yet reached their full potential and the North Koreans are signaling (including to a Russian audience) their potential interest in freezing their nuclear and missile testing programs.[5]

Second, in a later phase, multilateral security, political and economic arrangements should be reached to begin building down the North’s missile and nuclear capabilities in return for a peace treaty or treaties that would guarantee North Korea’s security and prevent any party to the agreement from committing aggression.

Negotiations should be based on the understanding that the “menu” of concessions that the North Koreans can propose is much shorter than that of the United States. This is because some of Pyongyang’s concessions are irreversible (like intrusive access and inspections to verify North Korean compliance with its dismantlement commitments), while most of the concessions on the US menu are reversible (lifting of sanctions, a “peace treaty,” diplomatic recognition etc.).

Agreeing on a testing freeze in return for the US and ROK ending or scaling back their annual military exercises is not viable due to strong US opposition. However, it is worthwhile to explore other mutually agreed upon measures that could pave the way for opening a negotiating process, such as North Korean restraint in its missile and nuclear development programs in exchange for establishing a political dialogue channel aimed at diplomatic recognition, opening of liaison offices, lifting of some unilateral sanctions by the US and its allies, and economic cooperation.

Some signs show, that such a way is not totally excluded despite the “war of words” between the two countries, and as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested recently, “Perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue.”[6]

Once this bilateral process (even “talks about talks”) has begun, Russia can play a productive role—as it sought to do last month after the North Korean ICBM tests—to galvanize multilateral discussions on mechanisms to facilitate comprehensive negotiations. As it did in the previous format of the Six Party Talks, a working group on peace and security mechanisms for Northeast Asia could be convened under Russian auspices. It can both monitor and capitalize on the results of bilateral agreements and discuss further multilateral steps.

That said, navigating the second and third stages of the Russia-proposed roadmap are dimmer. The suggested second stage would include signing of bilateral agreements between DPRK and the US, ROK and maybe Japan, stipulating the generally accepted principles of relations among the states. The third stage would be full-fledged Six Party Talks dedicated to creation of a Northeast Asia security mechanism—a framework within which the issues of denuclearization, sanctions, conventional arms control and confidence-building measures, the military presence of foreign troops on the peninsula and all other security issues would be discussed.

In the long run, such political and diplomatic solutions are not impossible as long as the parties face reality and the facts, such as:

  • The US and South Korea should come to terms with the existence of North Korea and pursue a policy of coexistence rather than regime change. Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should be regarded as the long-term goal, not an immediate issue.
  • South Korea should abandon its dreams of unification by absorption and learn to live with its difficult neighbor side by side in peace and security.
  • North Korea should admit the fact that there will never be peace and prosperity in North Korea unless it abandons its nuclear weapons program or commit to do so when a new comprehensive security regime is in place.
  • Other regional players (China, Russia and Japan) should avoid pursuing egoistic interests and limit their actions to bridging the gaps and misunderstandings, based the reality that war on the Korean peninsula would benefit no one.

All of this may sound like wishful thinking or a pipe dream. But if this end-state cannot be envisioned, than all countries should prepare for war.

  1. [1]

    Russian Ministry of Defense, for some reason, has not recorded the launch altitude at the 3,000+ km, claimed by Pyongyang as well as other countries, which gives ground to official position that this was an intermediate-range missile. Pyongyang has ridiculed and criticized the Russian position. Настоящий слепой или имитирует слепого,

  2. [2]
  3. [3]

    US Congress suggestions to “control” foreign ports, including some Russian Far Eastern ports, to check how the sanctions against DPRK are implemented have triggered a backlash in the media and some politicians called it “equal to a declaration of war.”

  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [6]

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